This turned out to be a long post and there are no pics to pretty it up, so feel free to skip or go grab your cup of java and get comfy.
I had a bit of a blah day this week and after thinking a lot about things, writing e-mails back and forth with some good friends about things, and then thinking some more, it strikes me as pretty amazing how set in particular patterns we become, whether positive or negative. I would like to share two complimentary perspectives on the topic that I recently came across.
I have been making my way through a book called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (look for a separate post dedicated to this amazing book soon!), which speaks at length to the childhood experience and its potential to nurture a future serious addiction, or at least a predisposition to one, if the formative years are experienced as stressful or traumatic to the child. Gabor Maté, the author of the book, details how psychologically and physiologically the stressful childhood experience and the addiction processes go hand in hand. The addict’s brain is wired in a way that seeks outside stimulation that mirrors the positive feelings one receives from natural experiences of love and nurturance, it is less able to make positive choices that affect the self, while also being extremely limited in its capacity to suppress urges and make good judgments. He is not, of course, saying that a poor childhood directly causes addiction, or that all addicts come from bad homes, but that the chance of developing an addiction (or addictions) is greatly increased if the individual experienced stress or trauma when young. For the majority of addicts that Maté works with in the East Hastings area of Vancouver, and undoubtedly for the addicts that haunt Toronto streets, this stress-full experience becomes their life, which only further promotes the addiction process.
One of the most fascinating things for me, has been realizing just how much the first few years of life influence you as an adult. It is not that the brain cannot be changed in adulthood (although its plasticity greatly diminishes with age), but rather that the code, as it were, is mostly written at an age when you not only cannot comprehend the idea of said code, but can barely comprehend the idea of Self period. Yet, it is this stage in your life that will dig deep trenches in your mind, in your self development, in your world-view that will go on to influence the majority of the choices you make, how you see things, and what kind of place the world will become to you in general. Maté’s book is amazing at describing the struggle of the addict, the struggle between wanting to control or eradicate behaviour, but not being able to.
Some of the cases he details describe his patients struggling to understand why they continue to do hurtful, and often life-threatening, things to themselves and to the people they love even though they fully comprehend the consequences. Perhaps not as life-threatening, but frustrating nonetheless, are patterns of behaviours we all see in ourselves and wish to change. How many times have you said something, or behaved in a certain way only to regret it mere moments later? Or how often does it happen that we end one relationship and begin day dreaming how in the next one we can be a better person, and yet continually struggle with the same personal issues and responses? It is possible to change of course, but we all know it is difficult.
This is, at least partially, due to the fact that those habits, behaviours, personality traits, whatever you want to call them, were mostly created when we were really really young. We cannot remember their formation. I know my childhood “memories” are a series of somewhat blurry images, woven together with stories I have heard, pictures I have seen, and, if my psychology training has taught me anything, pure fabrications of my mind. Often the “first memory” we have cannot be verified by anyone else and can often be readily disputed by parents, siblings, or other witnesses to your life. It seems that as we try to retrace our steps along the map that shaped us as humans, the roads get more twisted, the edges more blurry, and eventually the whole thing kind of unravels.
So what to do about it? The day that I was not having the best of times I listened to some EckHart Tolle and found his words echoing a lot of what I had been reading in the book. About how, if we don’t work at maintaining awareness in the moment we are prone to act without thinking and be ruled over by set patterns which have been developed in the past, but to which we revert automatically. Tolle’s advice (well I suppose it would be any Buddhist’s advice) is to stay present in the now as much as possible. Not in the past, not in the future, not in some emotional daze of negative feelings, but just in the now. In the present and in the body. It is interesting to note that lot of addiction therapies include meditation and awareness in their tool kit to recovery, even In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts features a 5-step process to overcome addictions that very much mirrors Buddhist philosophy.
So I guess the way out of the unconscious and automatic responses in any facet of our lives is to be more present and more aware of what is going on inside your body and your mind. This will lead to new behaviours which eventually, albeit slowly, leads to new mapping in the brain, which ideally helps with any sort of obsessive or addicted thought pattern or behaviour. The bad day in question got a lot better for me when I stopped my looped “poor me” thinking and just sat there and tried not to think. Or at least just think about what my body felt like, what my breathing was like, what my surroundings were like. It is kind of amazing how these really short breaks of the day to day stuff can really refocus the mind. The key though is practice which I am not very good at maintaining, but I try to stay at it because how amazing would it be to actually be fully aware; to not fly off the handle, to not say that hurtful thing that feels terrible as soon as it leaves your mouth, to not spend that money in the spur of the moment because it feels like you need to have that thing, whatever it happens to be? Baby steps I suppose, but at least on those really bad days when something’s gotta give, it seems the easiest thing is to just try to calm your brain down a little. Amazing things can come out of that – having three people in my family who all study Buddhism has taught me that first hand. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some not-thinking, awareness stuff to get to.